Chapter Seventeen

     Brun found Benny floating in the water, and levitated him out just moments before the boy surely would have drowned. He now stood looking at the unconscious lad who he had been charged with training, and the feelings rolling off of Benny were so great that when Brun saw colors, the reddish color which had long been associated within Brun’s thoughts with dread and fear was two inches thick around the boy, consuming his entire aura.

     Brun felt what the boy felt, saw what he was seeing in his mind, and knew that the boy was with the creature who was inhabiting his body. He’s in the Upper Realms, right now, he thought. Watching.

     Brun began to merge his thoughts with those of the boy, who was experiencing massive amounts of pain in the Upper Realms and was incapacitated by it within the Inner.

     He’s looking through his own eyes again, he narrated to himself. He is feeling as the creature waits, watching some road. Then there is a noise, and the spirit uses Benny’s body to jump in front of something. It’s a… a…

     Finally the merger between minds brought the proper words and understanding to Brun.

     It’s a motorized vehicle. A… Jeep. The Jeep hits Benny’s physical body. All he can see is spinning, all he can feel is pain in his legs, but it is quickly receding.

     Within the Inner, Benny jerked and moaned. Brun closed his good eye, leaving the magical eye open. Always open.

     He feels the monster’s incredible strength, coursing through his own body. He is angry. He wants his body back for himself. He wants the damage to stop, before he only has a crippled body left to come home to. More watching, this time as his body stands to its feet. I can feel him trying, with every ounce of will he thinks he can muster, to take control. The jeep has come to a stop, and the body begins to move towards it fast.

     There are flashes, but the weapon of death is not a match for this one. He sees everything about the attack before it even begins, and almost nothing can touch him, even the deadly, quick metal bees (Brun’s mind could not think of a better way to describe them, and the consciousness of Benny was too enrapt with the effort of trying to seize control to provide a better term.)

     He feels it as the breaks to his bones from the impact with the Jeep heal up, even as the creature runs on them. The realization sets in that as long as this thing inhabits his body, nothing can hurt him for very long. He is close to the Jeep now, and just as he feels the creature getting ready to spring, there is another blast. The creature is caught off guard by the wide splay of the buckshot, but of course it does not kill him. But… Yes! The thing inside Benny’s body has lost some of its grip on the boy, and the consciousness has seeped through. I feel Benny fighting, restraining the creature, holding the limbs of his physical body still.

     I see the boy in the driver’s seat of the Jeep staring, dumbfounded, and am not surprised when the big one in the back shouts ‘Go, you god damned fool! How long do you think he’s just going to stand there?’

     The vehicle speeds off, and I feel Benny gradually relinquishing control of his body once again. There is a deep sense of satisfaction, even though the moment of control was only brief.

     I did it, I hear Benny think. I helped them, just a little.

     Yes you did, Benny. I hear a strange, gruff female voice begin to speak. You will regret that, you piece of shit boy.

     Fuck you, Benny replies. This is my body, and I certainly intend to get it back. No piece of shit girl is going to hold it from me.

     The view follows the Jeep into the distance while the pieces of buckshot continue to find their way out of him, and then Benny’s body is running down an alley.

     We’ll see about that.

     I feel the pain as Benny’s body runs head first into a wall, guided by the monster within him. The life force of Benny is receding again, back into the Inner.

     Brun opened his normal eye, and there lay Benny, eyes open and breathing hard.

     “You did well, Master Benny,” Brun said with a crooked smile. “Better than a lot of people would have done.”

     “Thanks,” Benny said, rubbing his head. “But after hitting that wall I couldn’t keep my hold there. I just…let go.”

     “As you should have,” Brun said. “But I know one way to cure a mediocre headache like that.”

     Brun was still slightly connected to Benny, and he could feel the weak headache. It wasn’t much, and there was one sure fire way to make it go away for the boy while within the Inner.

     With a flick of the hand, his own personal hide-pack came whizzing across the clearing and into his outstretched hand.

     He pulled out the Lana plant.

**

     A few hits was all it took Benny this time. He sat staring at a tree, the headache beginning to recede. Brun was using some of the dehydrated meat from the Rokmon bird he had caught at the beginning of their journey to make a sort of soup.

     He took in the sweet smell, thinking about the thing inside his body in the Upper Realms. It was definitely a girl, he thought. But I don’t know if that will make it easier or not.

     He decided to ask Brun about it, and the man replied while cutting what looked like carrots (but which Brun himself insisted were called Tarrocs,) and dropping them into a small pot boiling over the fire. “It’s quite clear to me now, after hearing that deteriorating female voice, that Natas is using the same spirit he used when trying to attack Neonokin. It’s a rather flimsy partnership, I have to say, and I am quite surprised that they have worked together so many times when the two of them always seem to fail as a team. But it is the same old story that has gotten him banned from the Upper Realms before.

     “There is a murder. The madman evokes a spirit into the body, and the body is used like a puppet to achieve his means.”

     “But I wasn’t killed,” Benny said.

     “Correct,” Brun replied. “That is the only reason you still have hope. All the other bodies were dead in past attempts, and the flesh became corrupted and diseased extremely quickly. This gave them equally limited time to achieve the means of Natas.

     “However, you are not like the other humans,” Brun said. “You have been informed that you are one of the three echani, and just as you are special within the Inner, you are also special in the Upper Realms. Your body is no human body, and your mind is no average human mind. You remember what Beaner told you about how you are the co-creator, owner, whatever you wish to call it, of small parts of everyone’s individual slices of the Inner?”

     Benny shook his head. He remembered the conversation, all right.

     “That made it easier for Natas, because he has amassed such a large amount of area, that awful dark place I showed you known here as the Mad Keep, though hardly any are able to pinpoint its location, that he is connected to you in those subtle ways. Ever since breaking the laws set up by you and the other two all those millennia ago, Natas has been… how can I phrase this… connected to everyone alive in the Upper Realms. You and the others are connected to everyone because you were the instruments by which the human mind was dualized, and since he is connected to you, he is therefore also connected to them.”

     Makes sense, Benny thought.

     “He has used this to his advantage, as well as your young age in the Upper Realms. You are the newest, you see, the last to reincarnate in the Upper Realms in order to stop him. Every time he has tried, another of you has manifested. First there was the Old One, who has not been seen for ages, and some believe that he died while banishing Natas from the Upper Realms, and there was Neonokin, who began life not long before you and ended it only four or five of your Upper years ago. She too has not been seen since her last effort to stop Natas, but she was such a powerful figure that no one in the Inner believes that she is really gone. She began life as Susan Swanson, and disappeared as Neonokin, the powerful warrior woman who wore a necklace in the shape of an eye. The legends have it that Osiris himself gave her his eye, in order to watch over all she did as well as convey his wisdom to her through it.”

     “Then I came along?” Benny asked. Myth after Legend after Fairy Tale, he thought bitterly. It’s like I’m some kind of damn messiah to this guy.

     “Then you came along,” Brun agreed curtly, and Benny got the sudden suspicion that he had not been alone in his thoughts. “Natas had somehow found a way to manifest on top of that hill in the middle of your town, this is true, but that was the only place in the entire world that he was achieving this. I did not want you to feel overly burdened with guilt, and so I kept it from you, but with your continued denial of what you are, my hand is forced. You unleashed that monster on your world. You were the only echani who was able to be taken over, and even though you were the youngest with respect to when he began his attempts, it is no excuse. The Old One was born knowing what he was, but that does not mean Natas made himself easily known when he first tried to goad the boy into murdering the person whose corpse the madman planned to use the way he is using yours. Don’t you get it? You are alive, your body will not decompose as long as your life force lives on within the Inner, no matter what harm befalls your physical body, and you fell for the simple test of irritation.”

     When Benny began to look indignant and attempted to retaliate, Brun cut him off. “All he had to do in order to set his plans in motion was somehow lure you to that hill, and get you to ask for him to open his eyes. Hell, the damned man couldn’t even force his will upon you. He has to be asked to show his eyes, and yet somehow you fell for it. Obviously you asked him, or you wouldn’t be in this position.”

     Benny could think of nothing he could say to justify it. He had dwelt on the words he had said to that man on Bonhelm Hill ever since this particular gob of shit had hit the proverbial fan. “Like I could have known what it would lead to,” he said dejectedly.

     “He told you!” Brun shouted in reply. “I have relived the memory over and over again within your thoughts, and he told you implicitly that if you saw his eyes you would be under his control.”

     “How was I supposed to know that he was telling the truth, when nothing like that ever happened in real life, as far as I knew until a week ago?” Benny asked, once again trying to defend himself and yet failing miserably.

     “Four days ago,” Brun corrected, pointing out the already painful realization of how much devastation had been wrought upon his hometown in such a small amount of time. “And you couldn’t have known, but you could have used the skills endowed upon you to restrain yourself from getting irritated and telling him you wanted to see the very things he warned you about. My point is simply that you were at the prime age to be taken over, and part of the responsibility lies on your shoulders. The entire thing was not your fault, of course it wasn’t, but that does not mean none of it was your fault, either.

     “All I want is for you to realize what has happened,” the small man continued, visibly bringing himself back into a relatively calm state. “Realize, see how you and you alone can help, and own it. Completely own it. Take responsibility like Susan Swanson did, and instead of trying to fight what you are, become what you have always been meant to be.”

     There was silence for quite a while after that, as Benny stewed over possible snide responses. In the end he held his tongue, though, and began to see the truth in the words. The other echani were supposedly missing, or dead for all anyone knew, and he was the last. He was the ‘plan C,’ the end all plan that people saved for when even their back up plan failed, and he was the one who would have to bring an end to Natas.

     “I’m sorry,” Benny said quietly. “I just don’t have any better way of dealing with this situation than making light of it.”

     “There is almost always a better way to do something, young Master Benny. It’s just about whether or not you feel like looking for it.”

     “Alright, you win,” Benny finally blurted out.

     “I do not wish to win, Benny,” Brun said, for once dropping the title of Master. “I want to help you win.”

     Benny stared into the fire, puffed his Lana, and said nothing.

**

Laura’s feet were killing her. Her face had been hurting considerably for a moment, but that pain had faded away and now she was concentrating on the throbbing from the soles beneath her. She had been barefooted when she helped her double escape, and even when she had gone out to seek the aid of Fusa and Ku (only to find that Ku was missing,) she had still not put anything onto her feet. All through the passages and sublevel prison of the LeVille Mansion, she had not felt much of anything besides the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

     The intervening time had been so fraught with chaos and excitement that she still did not realize that she had worn blisters in the bottom of her feet, which had not burst and were quickly filling with pus and dirt, until they had arrived at a place with loose pebbles. That was when her sores became so irritated that she was forced to take notice.

As they traveled, she had kept her eye out for trees with wide leaves that she could use for making wraps for them, but they continued to pass only the trees with pointy needles. She was beginning to despair.

     It killed her even more to realize that both Fusa and Ku were barefooted, and neither of them seemed to be experiencing any agony whatsoever. It was frustrating. She was the youngest, the one who was supposed to be most full of vitality, and yet she was the only one who seemed to be acting like a grumpy old woman. She hadn’t whined out loud yet, but inside she was reeling.

     They had traveled for more than five miles since the run in with the Crog, and Laura was only distracted from her pain by a constant sense of being watched. She looked over her shoulder every five minutes, but nothing ever seemed to be there. She would try to reach out with her mind, but would find nothing but trees. Around mile three she had given up trying to locate where the feeling was coming from, and settled into a slow trot behind the other two, listening to their stories and talks of strategy. The main focus seemed to be on whether or not Benny had been captured by the man they had seen in the flames, and whether the so called ‘Unborn Son’ had been there to secure the captivity of the third echani. Fusa insisted that it was impossible to know, for the Son would never allow them to see true images, but Ku countered this assumption by stating that he had been receiving thoughts from the second echani, the one called Neonokin, which clearly showed that the boy was alive. Fusa would refute this, as well, saying that Neonokin was long gone, and no one had heard from her for ages, indicating that she had probably died. Ku would merely laugh and tell his double/son just how stupid he was. “What could you possibly know about it, stupid boy?” he asked the first time Fusa stated his doubts. “Just because you have no conception of her existence, that does not mean she isn’t still intimately linked to me. I know she is not dead, and I know that Benny is not captured for the same reason. Besides, Neonokin has been monitoring the boy, and I know that he is doing just fine. You will see, insolent boy. You will see.”

     Laura didn’t have an opinion either way. All she knew was that she would be gone if Benny was dead, and she would probably feel any harm which might have befallen him. Ever since the terrible experience with the extreme chest pain, nothing new had surfaced besides the relatively brief flair of pain in her face.

      She had never done a lot of traveling, and being raised in a family such as she had been, Laura had never known what it meant to walk for miles, let alone ever imagined the pain that would accompany it. Her legs hurt, her feet hurt, and even her head hurt from the constant glare of the sunny Inner days on the half dead needles that were strewn all throughout the forest.

     Finally, after the sixth mile (which had taken nearly six hours, as the rough terrain of the mountainous forest made moving even a single mile most difficult,) when Laura had just begun to suspect that these two men would never tire out, they finally called for a rest for the night. Thus, their second day of travel came to an end. Laura could subtly feel Benny getting closer again, just as she had felt the reverse when she had sent him away for his own good. She had ceased to grow, and she suspected that she had now completed her strange growth spurt, caused by Benny’s arrival below the Upper Realms.

     She helped Ku and Fusa set up camp and laid herself down on some leaves, looking up at the stars. There was no moon within the Inner like the one Benny had described to her from the Upper Realms, but nonetheless the sky fascinated her. It was something she had never experienced in Hayvan. Growing up in a cavernous cave filled in with buildings, streets, and her father’s mansion had given her a profound appreciation for the blue sky of the day and the star riddled sky of the Inner. Hayvan was situated in such a manner that visiting the actual Inner had been a rare thing. Her eyes hurt during the day, and saw everything during the night, being accustomed to the dim, fake daylight of her home.

     The smell of Ku’s cooking was delicious, but she barely paid it any mind as she thought about the stars above her. The man she had once called her father, Arthur LeVille, had once told her during a trip to the Inner that each star was a human, and that they glowed in the sky because they were the physical embodiment of what it meant to be alive in the Upper Realms. He said the Inner was like the dark night sky, and the points of light were like the flares of illuminated thought within a human. Each one was supposedly the gateway to the particular human, and he said that if she were to travel to every different person’s own allotted space of the Inner, she would see a different star being the brightest in each one. That was supposedly the star that represented the human who ‘owned’ that part of the Inner.

     Looking in the direction they were heading, Laura noticed a blood red star, with a dimmer purple star closely neighboring it. She had never noticed it on any of the other few trips into the Inner with LeVille, but that only meant that she was unable to take in every single star, which was not surprising to her.

     I wonder which one is Benny’s and mine, she thought. She knew her feelings for him were childish, but she still couldn’t help holding some hope that what she had said to Natas would turn out to be true. I can win him by myself. He will love me, one day, just like I love him.

     Gazing at the stars was pleasant, but intuition told Laura that they didn’t really have the significance her father had originally described to her. She knew from her lessons with Ku that the Pillar of Brynj, the unfathomably long and thick pillar that she had witnessed being eaten away by the acidic creatures while she, Ku, and Fusa had been passing through the between world, was actually the bridge of all human consciousness to their parts of the Inner. It was one of the great wonders of the human mind, keeping everything perfectly separated while also allowing dreams and subconscious thinking to function.

     Yet, for some reason, the Madman, Ardemeus Vonwell, who she had grown up around and had trusted, who had recently been revealed to her as the Dark Man of Legend, Natas, was attempting to create those giant Feerel in order to bring the Pillar down. Laura shuddered at the thought of what this would mean to mankind. Insanity, she felt sure.

Benny will stop it from happening, she thought, ever full of confidence for her double. Even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s capable of, he will one day soon, and he won’t let it happen.

     Feeling the slight breeze on her face, Laura pondered what could be going on up above. Something had happened to Benny’s body again, she felt sure, because she had experienced the pain in her face. But it had been extremely brief, so she didn’t think it was a permanently damaging occurrence, whatever it had been.

     Soon she found herself dozing off, despite her hunger for whatever it was that Ku was cooking over the fire. He would wake her, she knew, so she allowed the exhaustion to overtake her. When she dreamt, she dreamt of what Benny was dreaming. It was like looking through a window into a narrow, dark passage that had another window on the opposite wall. She looked through the first window (her dream,) and back out the other window (Benny’s dream) into the world beyond. In this instance, she saw the Upper Realms and the things happening to Benny’s body.

     The view was from high up, as if looking down from the top of a building. Below, a small family was walking along with rifles in their hands. Even the small boy of no more than ten had a small .22 in his hands. They were walking cautiously, their backs to the building on the far side. As Laura continued to watch (helpless to do otherwise,) the view seemed to blur as Benny’s body leapt from the building and fell toward the family. None of them seemed to notice the boy flying at them until it was too late.

     Laura actually felt it as the legs of Benny’s physical body in the Upper Realms took the fall, instantly recoiling as the thing controlling the body lunged at the people. The father and the mother both raised their guns, but strong, abnormally powerful hands reached out and grabbed both of them, pushing them apart just before they fired. The twin blast was almost simultaneous, and Laura felt as the bullets moved through the air by Benny’s head.

     But then the vision moved so fast that even Laura couldn’t fully tell what was going on. All she knew was that at one moment the hands were forcing the guns apart, and the next there was the taste of blood and another taste that she assumed must be human flesh.

     Then the vision was centering on the child, clutching his gun without even the slightest appearance of knowing how to use it.

     You won’t get away with this for much longer, the voice of her double suddenly said. It was distorted and echoed so much that she could only barely understand it, but it was definitely her double.

     Benny! She tried shouting in the dream. Its me!

     I really am coming for you, and soon you will not be able to stop me from sabotaging every single attempt you make at death.

     Laura could feel as the body gave a malicious grin, and was forced to watch as the boy cringed in fear, tried to pull the trigger of his gun only to find that it was jammed, and then died as the hands of her double’s physical body squeezed its windpipe, lifting the child off of the ground.

     She could tell that the creature inside Benny was enjoying this, and it wasn’t even applying its full strength, in order to watch the boy die slowly of lack of air as opposed to dying almost instantly from a collapsed windpipe and loss of blood. He’s making Benny see this, she thought, wishing she could try but finding herself with no body but the grinning life form that Benny’s body had become. I don’t want to see this anymore.

     Laura? Benny’s voice enquired.

     Before she could respond, she was rushing backward, pulled out of the terrible vision by some unseen force, and slowly she began to hear another, more distant voice taking up the call.

     “Laura?” the new voice came, extremely muffled.

     “Laura?” it came again, this time a little more clear.

     “Laura? Wake up!”

     She opened her eyes and found her brow covered in sweat and the back of her clothes drenched. She was looking up at the concerned old face of Ku, his worry lines clearly showing the age he seldom seemed to display. She turned to the side and wretched

     “Did you see any of that?” she asked, gasping for breath. With the sweat covering her body, the night air seemed a lot more cold than it had been when she fell asleep.

     “Of course I did,” the old man said. “I saw all of it. I think you would do best to forget about it, Miss Laura.”

     “But I heard Benny!” she said, trying to sit up but finding herself pulled back down by Fusa, who she had not known was behind her.

     “Rest,” Fusa’s deep voice boomed. “You are always in too much of a rush to do things, young child. You may not be aware, but as your double strained his mind attempting to stop the beast who has taken over his body, some of his exhaustion moved to you as well. Get up now, and you will just pass out and be back to watching those bloody visions. That is, unless this boy Benny has awoken here in the Inner as well.”

     “You heard him, yes,” Ku said. “And I believe at the very end he heard you too. Luckily for us, the being cohabitating inside his body did not. We don’t want Natas or any of his little minions to know that we are getting close enough to Benny that you can communicate with him. That would give them too much information about our location, and I have spent too long and too much energy trying to ensure that Natas hardly even thinks I’m alive anymore to have it ruined because you wanted to talk to Benny. So please, child, don’t try to contact him again if you have one of those dreams.”

     Laura found herself once again in the same position she had been in before allowing herself to doze off: lying on her back, looking up at the stars, thinking about Benny. Now that she saw what was going on up there with his body, she felt the urgency more than she had this entire time. Even when she had rushed to get Benny out of her father’s mansion, she had not felt so panicked. She had known that terrible things were happening to the physical body of her double, but she had not been aware that it was going around ravaging families.

     Finally, after what seemed like an hour at least, Fusa told her she could sit up. She tried to imagine what it must be like for Benny, wherever he was within the Inner, to wake up after straining his mind to reach up into the Upper Realms and cause some sort of change in the body he had lost. It certainly couldn’t be a very pleasurable experience, she felt sure.

     As she sat eating the porridge like substance Ku had produced, Laura pondered on why Benny had been unable to affect any change whatsoever. Surely, he must be able to do something to the creature, especially if he was dreaming of it every night. Up until then, the time tracks on which she and Benny ran had been too far distant for them to both be sleeping at the same time, but having gotten so close to Benny (apparently they were only about ten or fifteen miles from him and would catch up soon, according to Ku,) she was now sleeping at the same time as him. Now that she saw what Benny must have been dreaming about every night since she sent him into the Inner, Laura felt a pang of pity. Maybe he has already done it, she thought, and so the second attempt was harder because he has considerably less strength remaining after his first success.

     She allowed herself to be encouraged by this thought, but nonetheless she stayed awake the rest of the night, feeling fully reinvigorated by the sweet smelling stuff Ku had cooked.

     The next day they set out, at a faster pace than normal. Whenever they would crest a hill, Ku would gather her and Fusa into his arms and do one of his many fascinating tricks, in this case causing them all to skip across the intervening valleys to another hill on the far side. They would only do this every two hours or so, though, for he claimed that it was a very draining process to bend the space of the Inner enough to cause the jump.

     After the third time (when the sun was once again beginning to set, casting a deep red glow over the land,) they found themselves on a hill which spoke to Laura’s very core. She could feel Benny all around, in the trees, in the grass, and even in the air. When she linked with the trees the way she had with her gun during their confrontation with Natas, she could feel the picture they tried to paint in her mind. Plants had a funny way of thinking, in her opinion. They didn’t see, but sensed everything around them, enough that they could even transmit to her basic shapes. They showed her a blurry, black and white outline of a boy and someone extremely small with him. The silhouette of the bigger one, who she figured to be Benny, was sitting on the ground, and a small, pebble sized shadow was floating up and away from him. Suddenly she saw the pebble (or at least the small shadow she assumed to be a pebble) hurtle back at the boy, slamming him in the head. He sat rubbing it. There was no noise to accompany these images, but Laura got the feeling that the smaller man-shadow was scolding him for something.

     They were here, she thought, instantly filling with excitement when the image the tree showed her was done. She thanked the tree in her mind, and even took a small amount of the meat Ku had cooked at their first camp and buried it underneath one of the roots. In that way she hoped to properly thank the tree, and when she buried it, she buried it snug up against the root so that it could begin consuming it instantly.

     She couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed like the tree was grateful for being thanked in such a way. Ku had allowed them to stop there, so that Laura could try to learn anything she could from the trees, stones, and ground where her double had sat only a day or two before her.

     “You have a great gift, Young Miss Laura,” Ku said, watching her as she unlinked from the tree. “There are not many people who can communicate with inanimate objects in the way you can.”

     “Really?” Laura asked. “I thought it was something both of you would surely be able to do.”

     “When I first began teaching you how to move things, I told you to picture yourself as the object, get inside it, but I never suspected you would actually be able to put parts of your soul inside things, thereby being able to speak with objects that would otherwise go unheard.”

     Laura didn’t deal well with compliments, but she did her best to accept them without refuting what he was saying or blushing too hard. It was just that she hadn’t thought of it as something special. She had been able to do it since the first object she had ever moved, just not to the degree she was coming to by the time they reached the hill. “Thank you, Ku,” she said. “But really… all I do is become one with them, like you taught me to, and its up to the object to decide if it wants to reveal its secrets or not. Like my gun…” she took it out of the strap and held it on her lap. Ku seemed to recoil slightly, but she pretended not to notice. Fusa hadn’t liked the gun either. “It’s cold and silent, barely communicating with me at all. When I first got it, I could link with it, but get no memories or feelings from its past. Its just… lifeless… but I have felt rocks here in the Inner tell me their secrets, watched stories from trees, and pretty much everything I have tried to link with has given me some sort of feelings. But not my gun. Not since I used it to shoot Natas.”

     “No doubt it knows that it was made for only one purpose,” Ku replied, “and is therefore not very keen on talking.”

          “I guess,” Laura replied. She put the gun back into its makeshift holster and moved away from Ku, enjoying talking to the trees and seeing their stories of Benny. One was a massive tree with large needles almost as long as her fingers, and it told her that its roots were connected to a large amount of other trees in the woods they were in (or rather, it gave her a very specific visual description, in which the picture started with the tree and then proceeded to illustrate the roots growing outward, connecting from tree to tree.) By the end, she assumed that almost a quarter of the woods had to be in some sort of link with this one tree. Indeed, upon climbing it, she found that from its higher branches, she could see no tree in all of the Unalla Woods that was anywhere near as tall.

     That’s when she saw something else, as well. About a mile to their right, the woods ended abruptly and became a long plain, stretching off into the distance. Looking back in the direction they had come, Laura saw that it had bordered the woods the entire time they had been traveling. Way off in the distance, she could just barely make out the greenish cliffs where Ku’s powerful plant had dumped them into the Inner.

     She turned back to the direction in which they were traveling, and noticed yet another strange thing off in the distance. It was too small to really make out what it was, but it was throwing up dust as it traveled along the plain, just outside the edge of the woods. Stretching back toward her from the strange dust-throwing object was a line, and after a moments study she concluded that it was tracks in the dusty ground of the plain.

     So whatever the thing was, it was extremely heavy. Also, its wheels were far enough apart that where the tracks came closest to Laura’s location, she could distinctly tell that they were formed by something with an axle, for it was actually two lines running parallel to each other through the plain, not just one.

     A cart? She wondered. It would have to be massive.

     Suddenly the image from one of her dreams came back to her, of Benny standing tied to the center of a giant cart, riding through a valley as blood flowed down the mountains, threatening to kill him. A gust of wind struck the top of the massive tree just then, and caused her to sway dangerously. On the breeze she could distinctly make out the faint smell of gasoline, like that which was used in Hayvan for generators (but sparingly, and with tight regulations, or else the people of that large cavern would have surely suffocated themselves.)

     Looking in the direction the distant, dust puffing thing was moving, she saw the mountains shimmering. At first she mistook it for a heat wave, but then she remembered that the Inner didn’t work that way. After having that thought, it also struck her as awfully peculiar that the mountains were topped with snow.

     But then the shimmer receded, and she saw only mountains. Still, she couldn’t quite accept the snow. She decided to call Ku.

     KU! She thought forcefully in her mind. Come up here, if you can.

     “Of course I can,” came the old, cheery voice, directly behind her head. She swung around in surprise and almost fell off the tree, but luckily she caught hold of one of the branches before that could happen. Sure enough, there was Ku, floating beside her.

     ”Hey, cool trick,” she said. “Later I want you to teach me that. But for now, look there.”

     She pointed diagonally out across the plain, first at the distant object that she thought was a giant cart. “And there, those strange mountains.”

     “Hmmm,” was the only response she got for several minutes. Then he opened his mouth to speak, and Laura waited patiently, only to see the old man close his mouth again and Hmmm at her once more.

     “Isn’t it odd?” she asked finally, unable to take the silence anymore. “The mountains have snow, and the tracks indicate a cart or some other sort of vehicle, but in order to make tracks that visible from here, it would have to be gargantuan.”

     “What makes you think that’s so strange?” Ku asked, still looking in the direction of the mountains.

     “Which part?” she asked, unable to mask her frustration. She didn’t feel like they had time for riddles. Laura didn’t dream very often of anything other than events relating to Benny’s life, but the one about the cart and the valley of blood had for sure been some sort of omen, she thought, and the idea was reinforced tenfold now that their seemed to be a massive cart traveling away from them.

     “Either part,” Ku replied, his eyes distant. She could tell by the glazed over, distant look and the sudden monotone of his voice that he was barely with her right then. He was somewhere else. Perhaps scaling the mountains in his head, she thought irritably.

     “Well the weather should be the same everywhere, even on the mountains, and so the snow doesn’t make sense. And I’ve never heard of any giant carts before, especially when one considers how big a creature would have to be to haul such a thing.”

     “This is the Inner,” Ku replied. She hated it when he did this. It was rare, but he had done it before. One moment he would be his happy self, then she would say something that would get his attention and he would suddenly be in a completely different world. He would begin talking in sentences of no more than three or four words, and his eyes would be clouded and distant-looking. Somehow he always managed to pay attention to what she was saying, but it made her feel as if he wasn’t putting forth very much effort to make sensible replies.

     “So?” she retorted. “I know that anything can happen here, but the biggest thing we’ve seen so far was that crog, and I highly doubt whoever is in that cart has one of them pulling it.”

     That’s when his vitality seemed to return to his eyes. He blinked once or twice before looking around, finding her, and smiling his wrinkly, warm smile. “Yes, young daughter,” he said. “You are quite correct. They are not being pulled by a crog. No, those people are being pulled by their children.”

     “What?” she exclaimed, incredulous. “Seriously? They’re using children to pull that thing?”

     “Yes and no,” Ku said. “The children are pulling it, yes, and it is a massive cart, yes, but the children are not slaves. They do it of their own volition.”

     “Well, that’s one answer,” she said. “What about the mountains?”

     “They are not mountains,” Ku said, and began descending slowly to the ground.

     Laura began scrambling down the branches, trying to keep up as he slowly drifted downwards. “I don’t understand you sometimes, Ku On Hu,” she said. “They’re clearly mountains.”

     “Are they?” he asked, with a tired smile. “Can you really be sure of what you saw?”

     She remembered the shimmer that looked like the air moving from heat.

     “Was it a mirage, then?” she asked, jumping from the branch she was on, grabbing another, and dangling there while her feat searched for the next branch.

     “I suppose you could call it that,” Ku said. “Its strange. I didn’t think we would find the Madman with land so close to Hayvan and the edge. I guess I spent more time in Hayvan than I thought.”

     “You’ve been there ever since I can remember,” Laura said.

     “Yes, and since you can remember all the way back to the day after you began forming, this means I was there for well over five years. Within the Inner, that’s tantamount to about seven or eight years. Still, I didn’t think he would gain ground so quickly.”

     “I don’t understand,” Laura said, finally dropping from the lowest branch onto the soft forest floor.

     “Fusa,” Ku shouted over to his son, who was sitting with his back to a tree, smoking one of Ku’s cigarettes. “Get that damned thing out of your mouth and come over here.”

     Fusa grinned, took one last puff of the cigarette, and got up. “What is it, father?” he asked, half sarcastically.

     “The Unborn Son is guiding the man we saw to the Mad Keep.”

     Laura had never heard of the ‘Mad Keep,’ but by the sudden drain of color from Fusa’s face, she gathered that it wasn’t a place she wanted to go. She had never seen the large man look frightened about anything, but there he stood, pale with fear. He even gulped, and it would have been comical under any other circumstances. “Shit,” was all the reply Fusa gave.

     “So… what’s the Mad Keep?” Laura asked, once again feeling as if she was missing something that she was supposed to have gotten.

     “The mountains you saw were not mountains, like I said,” Ku replied. “They were buildings, disguised as mountains by the powerful sorcery of Natas. You know the legends, no?”

     “Somewhat.”

     “Then you understand that his goal has always been to take the entire Inner into his possession, so as to have absolute power and control in both realms of human existence. For time out of mind, we echani have worked to keep this from happening, and after the Council of Valence was formed, we used their aid as well. Lately it had seemed as if we were succeeding, especially when I saw that he had changed tactics to trying to destroy the separation between worlds, but after seeing that the Mad Keep has grown in size so quickly, it seems more likely to me that the Council has ceased whatever aid they were offering us. Probably because they thought we were all dead. Stupid old men. They knew the prophecies, and they knew there would be a third. Even if I had died, and Neonokin had perished as people believe, there still would have been a coming third whom they were honor bound to help.”

     “The Mad Keep is the massive part of the Inner held by the Madman,” Fusa clarified for her, seeing the blank look on her face.

     “Thanks,” Laura replied. She didn’t have much to say in response, for the Mad Keep was yet another part of the old legends of which she had never truly believed. One thing she did wonder about was how it could have grown in such a fashion. To be the size of a mountain… well that just seem preposterous.

     “Its not so strange,” Ku said. “To the Upper Realms, he may have only plagued their history on and off for a few hundred years, but within the Inner, it has been a battle for millennia. Natas will not waste anything, including servants. Anything killed, he transforms. Anything destroyed, he rebuilds using the materials of that which was demolished. He has had many, many people to do his work for him, and in no time at all he can make buildings the size of peaks. That ‘mountain’ you saw is really the stronghold of the Keep, and even that is much farther off than the borders of the keep. You saw the cart, no?”

     Of course Laura had. She nodded.

     “That is where the Unborn Son currently holds sway over the girl we saw in the flames,” Ku continued ominously.

     The girl who looks like me, Laura thought with the smallest of shivers.

     “Our Benny was within feet of this creature, but as you can see, the Son exercises considerable restraint on behalf of Natas. I sense that there was some sort of plan laid, in order to lure Benny into the Keep, where his abilities to manipulate the Inner would be greatly diminished.”

     “But what about all the children you said were pulling the cart thing?” Laura asked, feeling a swell of compassion for the children she had never even met or seen. She was thinking about the Feerel, and how they were created.

     “An added bonus, in Natas’ eyes,” Ku said. “No doubt he wishes to use them. Nothing wasted, as I said before.”

     “Feerel,” Fusa said, confirming the fears Laura felt.

     “We can’t let them go in there!” Laura exclaimed. She had seen the waste of life that the Feerel were, had felt how easy it was to destroy them. “You said he doesn’t waste, but the Feerel rip easier than paper! That would be the biggest waste of all, in my opinion.”

     “The alternative use for them is much worse,” Ku said, his tone dropping almost to a whisper. “I will not speak of it. I promise you, my child, we will do anything we can. But they are so close, I do not know if we can reach them in time. Besides that, I feel great danger on the wind. Whether it is danger for us, or danger for Benny, I cannot say. Neonokin has her eye on him, though, I promise you that.”

     Hopefully she has two eyes on him, Laura thought fiercely. Or I will make the people’s beliefs come true myself.

     Ku was watching her and smiling, probably knowing her thoughts as he always did, no matter how hard she tried to hide them. For once, though, she thought she caught a bit of his thoughts, unguarded, accidentally allowed into her stream of consciousness. It confused her more than it illuminated anything, though.

     Only one, very special eye, was what she heard. Then he noticed her watching him queerly, and instantly began finding something else to do.

     Strange, she thought. I guess if the stories of Neonokin’s awesome powers are true, one eye will have to do.

 


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